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The Evolution of the Graduation Cap

Published Apr 11, 24
3 min read

In the annals of academic history, the graduation cap stands out as a distinctive symbol of scholarly achievement. Originated in the medieval universities of Europe, these caps were initially part of the ecclesiastical dress, reflecting the church's influence on education during the 12th and 13th centuries. As academic institutions like Oxford and Cambridge began formalizing the commencement attire, the graduation cap underwent several transformations before stabilizing in form during the 15th century.


Distinctly shaped like a square, the graduation cap, often known as the mortarboard due to its resemblance to a mason's tool, was influenced by the biretta, a similar cap used by Catholic clergy. This transformation from a clerical accessory to a symbol of academic completion provides a fascinating glimpse into how educational traditions are shaped by cultural and historical contexts.


As the centuries progressed, the ceremonial significance of the graduation cap expanded, embodying the pride and accomplishments of its wearers. Today, the wearing of the graduation cap during commencement ceremonies is a practice observed in educational institutions worldwide, signifying not only personal achievement but also the continuance of an age-old tradition.

Types and Significance of Different Graduation Caps

The most commonly recognized form of the graduation cap is the mortarboard. Typically used by undergraduates and bachelor degree holders, this cap features a flat, square board fixed on a skullcap, with a tassel attached to the center. The color of the tassel often varies, representing different academic fields or levels of achievement.


On the other hand, the academic tam, often seen adorning the heads of master's and doctoral graduates, as well as faculty members, adopts a softer, more rounded shape that differs markedly from the rigid structure of the mortarboard. Made from plush velvet, the tam also includes a tassel, which is usually gold to denote advanced scholarly status. This differentiation in cap styles serves to visually distinguish between the varying tiers of academic accomplishment and roles within the educational hierarchy.

Creative Expressions on Graduation Day

Graduation caps offer a unique canvas for graduates to express their personal stories and accomplishments. Over the years, customizing these caps has become a popular tradition, with many students adorning them with messages, artwork, and embellishments that reflect their individual journeys and aspirations. This practice not only adds a personal touch to the commencement ceremony but also allows graduates to showcase their creativity and the profound personal significance of their academic journeys.


Ensuring that the graduation cap sits perfectly is crucial for both comfort and appearance during the ceremony. It is typically worn with the pointed end of the cap pointing forward, symbolizing the graduate's readiness to face the future. Meanwhile, the placement of the tassel also holds meaning—it is usually worn on the right side at the beginning of the ceremony and shifted to the left once the degree is conferred, symbolizing the transition from candidate to graduate.

Traditions and Ceremonies Involving the Graduation Cap

The act of tossing the graduation cap in the air, a tradition widely observed in many countries, marks the culmination of the graduation ceremony. This exhilarating moment symbolizes liberation and triumph, heralding the graduates' entry into the next phase of their lives. The tradition is believed to have been initiated by the U.S. Naval Academy in 1912, where newly commissioned officers threw their caps into the air upon graduation as they no longer needed them.


Another poignant aspect of the graduation cap is its role in heralding the achievements of students. For many, the cap is not merely a part of academic regalia but a badge of honor, representing years of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. The significance endowed upon it makes the graduation cap a treasured keepsake for many, often preserved as a memento of this major life milestone.

What is the proper way to wear a graduation cap?

To wear a graduation cap correctly, the cap should sit squarely on the head with the pointed end of the board facing forward. The cap should be snug but comfortable, sitting about an inch above the eyebrows. The tassel should initially be placed on the right side and moved to the left side after the degree is officially conferred during the ceremony.

Why do graduates throw their caps in the air?

The tradition of throwing graduation caps in the air at the end of a commencement ceremony symbolizes freedom and achievement. It marks the transition from student to graduate and celebrates the conclusion of years of study and hard work. This practice began with the U.S. Naval Academy's class of 1912 and has since become a staple of graduation ceremonies around the world.
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